IT'S December and on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the first flurries of snow are suddenly beginning to rise and swirl down Second Avenue. The tourists exclaim and turn their mittened palms skyward, pleased at this festive addition to the Christmas shopping experience. The real New Yorkers in this well-heeled neighbourhood just pull their cashmere collars higher and grimly hail a cab. There's a long and bitter winter ahead, and this is really no time to get romantic about the cold.
Nestled at the centre of this little snowglobe scene is Neary's Pub, festooned with holly and ivy. In a distinctly un-Irish neighbourhood, it's been Manhattan's most popular Irish-American watering hole for more than 40 years, and a sort of Cheers bar for America's political elite. Senators, state governors and Irish ambassadors have nursed pints in its snug corners. Its irrepressibly jovial owner, Jimmy Neary, doggedly built the bar up from nothing in 1967 -- it opened on the wettest St Patrick's Day in memory -- to the veritable institution it is today. On the walls, there are signed mementoes from the Bushes, the Kennedys and Mayor Bloomberg, a close friend of Neary. On one side of the bar there are pictures of the Sligo man being solemnly greeted by past presidents at the White House.
On this quiet, snowy afternoon however, only a trio of stalwarts prop up the bar and Neary laughs indulgently with "the lads". If one of them has one too many, he'll do what's he's always done and throw their car in a garage in Manhattan and personally drive them back to Queens or the Bronx. He has always looked on the regulars as family. And 30 Christmases ago, he learned for the first time that was how they see him, too.
"Well there was this one guy called George Coleman," Jimmy tells me in an accent unadulterated by even the faintest Americanisms, and a in a manner which seems used to anecdotes. "And he had been coming in here for years. I knew George because he used to go swimming at the New York Athletic Club, where I was working. Then he started going into another bar where I worked. And he used to live in the area of this one, and so it was natural that this would become his local."
Coleman was a quiet, unassuming New Yorker, who was presumed to be of fairly limited means. He was a Second World War veteran, and his legs had been so badly injured that he found it difficult to sit down for more than brief periods. His father had been in real estate, but Coleman had been traumatised by his experiences in the war -- although he refused to speak about it -- and never married and had no children. "He'd sit in the corner with his two friends -- we'd call them the three musketeers -- and he'd have his dinner and scotch and then he'd get up and have a white mint and then he'd go home. It was his little routine," Neary tells me.
Jimmy noticed that Coleman would be in the bar seven nights a week "regular as clockwork".
"In fact," he tells me, "the only day he didn't come in was the only day we were closed -- Christmas Day." Knowing that Coleman's entire social life centred around the bar, and that he would in all likelihood be spending the holiday alone in his apartment, Neary did what he did with many of his stalwart customers; he invited him to spend the day with him and his family in New Jersey. "And we had a great time. We were only delighted to have him. You have to remember that the customers in the bar -- especially people like him -- were as much part of my life as we were of theirs. So it actually seemed fairly natural to have him with us on a family day. And my wife didn't mind at all. Michael -- our chef -- would cook the turkey and make the vegetables and all we had to do was bring it home. And we took George out (of Manhattan) and brought him back in again."
Things continued as usual after Christmas and into the spring, with Coleman showing up "like clockwork" every evening. And then one day 5 o'clock came and went and there was no sign of him.
"At 5.25 I was out on the street looking up and down, but there was no sign of him. So I had to find out where he was."
Neary left the bar and went to Coleman's apartment block where he was let in by the janitor. "And I had to explain to him that George hadn't come to the pub and that something might be wrong." The super -- which is what New Yorkers -- call their janitor-handymen, left Jimmy standing in the foyer of the building. "And when he came back down he just looked at me and shook his head and said, 'Mr Coleman won't be coming back down'."
The cops were called but foul play was dismissed as a possibility -- Coleman's doctor had confirmed that the war veteran had been on his last legs.
It was a black day in the bar, but Jimmy decided that since George had no relatives to speak of, and no real friends outside of the pub coterie, he would be waked in style at the bar. "We had one hundred people at the funeral and all were customers -- the poor guy had nobody," Jimmy tells me.
George's death was a shock to everyone in the bar, but perhaps an even greater shock came just a few weeks later. "A call came through and my wife Eileen took it. When she got off the phone she told me that it was George Coleman's lawyer and he's left you $30,000. And I said, 'You're bloody joking me'." But she wasn't joking and Coleman had left a total of $80,000 to the staff at the bar, bequeathing 10 grand each to the bartenders and waitresses and the remainder to Jimmy's partner in the bar." Coleman also turned out be substantially wealthier than anyone had suspected. Overall, he had left nearly a million dollars to charity, because in Neary's words, "he really had nobody else to leave it to".
There is a little memorial to Coleman on the wall at one end of Neary's bar, and the owner jokingly tells me that it is "the most expensive two bricks that anyone ever brought".
But heart-warming though the story of George Coleman is, it is but one of the famous anecdotes built into the brickwork at Neary's. Jimmy, who came to New York from Sligo on the boat in 1954, and worked his way up through stints as a porter and barman, has long been part of the fabric of the Irish-American community in New York. After arriving in America, he was drafted into the army and served a two-year stint in Texas and Germany during which he drove a tank, before coming back the US to continue a series of bar jobs. He became a bartender at Moriarty's Bar in 1959, and some years later, managed to get together the money to go into business with a friend of his, Brian Mulligan. They put down a deposit of $500 on a 57th Street restaurant that they had seen advertised in the New York Times. They eventually ended up paying $30,000. It didn't look like much to begin with, but slowly and surely Jimmy expanded the bar's clientele and wove the Irish-American story into the lore of the bar.
The city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been going into the bar regularly since 1974. On the Irishman's 75th birthday, Bloomberg took time out from his re-election campaign to serve as master of ceremonies at Jimmy's surprise birthday party. Bloomberg also took Neary on a trip to County Sligo on his private jet to attend an unveiling of a monument honouring General Michael Corcoran, the founder of the 69th Fighting Regiment. The two then went on a side trip back to the Irishman's home village of Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. Bloomberg also surprised Neary by naming September 14 Jimmy Neary Day in New York. "New York is a city of villages," Neary tells me. "And in that way it's very like home".
Such is his reputation as a host in the city that million-selling novelists such as Mary Higgins Clark and Barbara Taylor Bradford have featured Neary as a character in their novels. Neary actually solves a murder in Clark's bestselling Loves Music, Loves to Dance. He shows me copies of books, which she has sent to him, signed, with the relevant pages marked with Post-its. "She knows I won't read the whole book," he laughs. "So she just highlights the bits with me in them and then she sends them to me." He has seen good and bad times in the bar over the years, but tells me that, perversely, the bad times have been better for business, with people finding the bar a place to drown their sorrows during recessions and Wall Street crashes. "I can remember being in the bar the day JFK was shot and people were just walking the streets in a daze," he tells me. "People just needed to be around other people that day, so they came here."
The worst day however was 9/11. "You know what? I saw every storey of that building (the World Trade Centre) go up -- I drove past it every day on the way to work as it was built -- and I saw every storey of it go down." On the day of the terrorist attacks, he was stopped from entering the city and went down with his wife Eileen to watch the unfolding drama from the New Jersey side of the water. Their daughter Anne Marie, who worked for Morgan Stanley, was still in Manhattan and one of the long-time waitresses at the bar -- Mary, from Youghal Co Cork -- called her and asked her to fill in for her father. At the time people were in a panic and even suspected that the neighbourhood around the bar might be bombed because of its proximity to the UN. "It was an incredible sight," Mary tells me, "there were people walking in the door like ghosts, covered in soot and dust. They had walked in their suits all the way from Wall Street. And their faces ... you didn't know if they were going to cry ... they were shaking. They needed a drink. I've never seen anything like it in the 30 years I'm here."
"I used to look down (where the World Trade Center was) and just sort of exclaim I love this city!" Jimmy tells me. "And in the years since that happened I can't bear to look at the spot where it happened."
A certificate from the city authorities, which hangs in the bar, thanks Jimmy and his staff for keeping going on that day, but if there's one thing Jimmy hasn't been lacking over the years, it's recognition from the powers that be. A group had come over from Northern Ireland to honour George Mitchell's work during the Peace Process and Jimmy was invited to dine at the White House with George Bush. It was the same night as Jimmy's 32nd wedding anniversary and his wife Eileen, still reeling from the shock of the invitation, wasn't sure if she could face going. "She was a shy lady, and she just didn't see herself with all those people and it was such a big occasion," he tells me. Shortly after the invitation was received there was a group of politicians in the bar and Jimmy's daughter Una turned to one of them and said, "you know my mom doesn't want to go to the White House?" "And I'll never forget, Governor Pataki turned to her and said, "I am the governor of this state and I'm telling your parents that it is an order from me that they must attend the White House dinner." The order was carried out and photographs of the night, including one of Eileen shyly shaking the president's hand, are hanging on the wall in the bar. "It was awesome, Senator Dodd (of New York) showed us a great time," Jimmy remembers.
The bar was a power centre where international deals were secretly struck and where old adversaries -- such as leaders from both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland -- could put aside their differences over a St Patrick's night pint. "They acted like they hated each other in public, but then it was a different story when they were sitting here with a drink." Political careers could be made or ended over Neary's Dublin Broil and Mushroom Gravy. He tells me of a night in the bar that will live in the memory, March 10, 1983.
Former Taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald and his wife sat in one corner with the Irish ambassador to the US and the US ambassador to Ireland. The governor of New York sat in another corner with four of the Kennedy family. (Former Speaker of the House) Tip O'Neal sat in another corner. And for good measure at the bar we had President Roosevelt's son, John." It was probably the greatest concentration of Irish American political power this side of a Kennedy Christmas.
Jimmy suffered a devastating blow when he lost Eileen a couple of years ago. A couple of days later, Dana called into the bar in New York and asked for the owner. She was told he wasn't there and she said that she would like to sing at Eileen's mass. "And she came out to New Jersey to the mass and sang Our Lady Of Knock. She is a lovely unassuming person, and has a great accent."
The snow has turned to sleet outside Neary's and it's time for me to head back out into it, and for Jimmy and his staff to gear up for the dinner crowd. On the way out, we pass a sort of "hall of fame" of the book covers in which Neary has played a part or solved a murder. He tells me that he has been approached about writing a book but has always steadfastly refused. "I have to respect my customers' privacy as well," he laughs. "I believe that God gave us two ears, one to let it all in and the other to let it all out."
Neary's Pub is at 358 East 57th Street New York. Phone (001) 212 751 1434